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It’s that time of year… a look back at some of my favorite ETF charts and pictures from an eventful 2019.  Enjoy!


Previous “ETFs in Pictures”:

ETFs in Pictures I

ETFs in Pictures II

ETFs – Year in Pictures 2018

ETFs in Pictures: Fee Wars & the Future


2019’s Biggest ETF Story:

Let’s start with a Twitter poll to help set the scene.  The biggest ETF story this year?  All of the major brokerages going to commission-free trading.  In many ways, this makes perfect sense.  Investors save money on ETF trades and smaller ETF issuers get a fairer shake.  Commission-free trading also further disadvantages mutual funds, puts pressure on the entire wirehouse/broker business model, and fundamentally alters the discount brokerage competitive landscape (just look at the recent Charles Schwab/TD Ameritrade deal).  Highly disruptive.


Before & After:

Credit should be given to Robinhood for offering commission-free trades several years ago, putting pressure on the incumbents.  Vanguard then decided to go nuclear in early July 2018, offering nearly all ETFs commission-free.  Interactive Brokers reignited the commission-free war this past September and here’s what followed:
-Schwab went commission-free on October 1st
-TDA followed suit later that day
-E*Trade made their move the following day
-Fidelity joined the party a week later

The before and after…

Source: @tpsarofagis


From $70 to $0!:

It’s remarkable how far commissions have fallen since the 1970s (and, by the way, this Bloomberg graphic is also noteworthy because it morphed out of a tweet from yours truly!)…

Source: @NateGeraci/Bloomberg TV


Can Non-Transparent ETFs Save Active Management?:

Without question, one of the biggest ETF stories of 2019 was the SEC approving “non-transparent” ETF structures from Precidian, T. Rowe Price, Fidelity, Natixis and Blue Tractor.  Actively managed mutual funds have hemorrhaged assets.  The chart below shows outflows from a group of nine companies signing-up to license Precidian’s ActiveShares structure.  You can see why they’re interested.  Fund companies are hoping non-transparent ETFs can save the day.

Source: Financial Times


Better Mousetrap?:

There’s much speculation over whether non-transparent ETFs will garner investor interest.  How will fund companies price these ETFs compared to their mutual funds?  Will they offer the same strategies, including their flagship equity strategies, in these non-transparent wrappers?  Most importantly, whose problem do these non-transparent ETFs solve?  Investors or asset managers?

Source: Morningstar/Ben Johnson


A Seat at the Big Kids’ Table:

While this certainly doesn’t qualify as a visually appealing picture, the importance of the ETF Rule is seismic.  2019 will always be remembered as the year the SEC approved a regulatory framework for ETFs, instead of requiring them to operate through loopholes and exemptions.  The SEC spilled barrels of ink on hundreds of pages to show the ETF Industry is all grown up now, 26 years after the launch of the first ETF.

Source:  SEC


Record Bond ETF Flows:

2019 will also be remembered as the year bond ETFs came of age.  Global bond ETF assets crossed $1 trillion during the second quarter, while U.S. bond ETFs eclipsed their previous annual inflow record in October. BlackRock expects bond ETF assets to double to $2 trillion within 5 years.  Investors are realizing the lower costs and efficiency of owning bonds in an ETF and fund companies are providing a growing number of innovative choices.

Source:  Pensions & Investments


Source:  State Street SPDR ETFs


No Bitcoin ETF:

While the SEC was busy putting the finishing touches on the ETF Rule, that wasn’t the only morsel on their plate.  Multiple issuers have attempted to bring a bitcoin ETF to market since 2013.  Alas, as of the time of this post, there’s still no bitcoin ETF.  In October, the SEC actually issued a 112-page(!) denial letter on the Bitwise Bitcoin ETF, with the biggest concern being fraud and manipulation in the underlying spot market.  The SEC does consider input from the public on regulatory filings – and I’ve previously laid out my case for a bitcoin ETF here – but this comment captures the sentiment shared by many:

Source:  SEC


“Pineapple Express”:

2019 was the year cannabis ETFs sprouted.  The first pot ETF, the ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF (MJ), launched in December 2017.  It would take until April 2019 for the second pot ETF to arrive, the AdvisorShares Pure Cannabis ETF (YOLO).  Then the floodgates opened.  There are now 8 marijuana ETPs on the market, including a 2x leveraged version recently launched from RexShares.  Unfortunately, the timing was inopportune as cannabis stocks nosedived.  Here’s the performance since the Global X Cannabis ETF (POTX) launched on September 17th:

Source: Nate Geraci/YCharts


The Race to Negative:

Perhaps the biggest ETF story earlier in the year was the launch of the first zero (and even negative!) fee ETFs.  After a relative period of calm which led some ETF industry observers (including yours truly) to declare the fee war over, there was a frenzy of fee cuts during a two-week period beginning in late-February.



Here are the ETPs currently charging zero or negative fees:



Why are Fund Companies Offering Free ETFs?:

A candidate for “chart of the year”, this succinctly captures the current investor attitude towards fund fees.  Investors are obsessed with low costs and fund companies are trying everything – including zero and negative fee ETFs – to catch investors’ attention.

Source:  Bloomberg TV


Where They Currently Stand:

With investors obsessing over ETF fees, the ETF industry weighted average fee fell below 0.20% in 2019.  A fee comparison across the top 10 ETF issuers:

Source:  @NateGeraci


Focus on Fees Presents Dilemma for ETF Issuers:

Reality Shares CEO Eric Ervin comically explains the dilemma from an ETF issuer’s standpoint, though he would be the first to tell you this is no laughing matter.  As an aside, I highly encourage you to check out a full Twitter thread of ETF memes here.

Source: @eervin1


Another Major Milestone for ETFs:

Total ETF assets crossed over $4 trillion in 2019.  ETFs hit $1 trillion in 2010, $2 trillion in 2014, $3 trillion in 2017, and $4 trillion in July of this year.  A breakdown of U.S. ETF assets by issuer…

Link:  Wall Street Journal


Vanguard Tops $1 Trillion in ETF Assets:

Another noteworthy ETF milestone in 2019 was Vanguard becoming the second ETF issuer (after iShares) to eclipse $1 trillion in assets.

Source:  @EricBalchunas


Evolution of ETF Provider Market Share:

Vanguard now comprises 26% of all ETF assets.  There are concerns regarding a top-heavy ETF industry, with 3 issuers accounting for > 80% of the market share.  Expect these concerns to grow louder in 2020 and beyond.

Source:  Morningstar Research


SPY Kids:

One of my favorite, and certainly one of the oddest, ETF stories from 2019 was the revelation that the fate of the world’s most popular ETF – the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) – hinges on the lives of 11 kids who were unknowingly named in the original setup of the unit investment trust (SPY’s structure).  SPY will cease to exist either in January 2118 or after the death of the last of the 11 kids, which ever occurs first.  This created quite a buzz, along with some interesting conversations around whether iShares or Vanguard might send a hit man to – let’s say – accelerate SPY’s demise.

Source:  SPDRs


“Deal of the Decade”:

In 2019, BlackRock marked the 10-year anniversary of what some call the deal of the decade.  BlackRock purchased the iShares ETF business from Barclays in 2009, a transaction Bloomberg’s Eric Balchunas has described as the “Louisiana Purchase of the asset management business”.  It’s hard to overstate the significance of this deal for both BlackRock and the broader ETF industry.



Shaping Returns:

While iShares, Vanguard, and State Street might dominate ETF assets, innovation is still alive and well among smaller ETF issuers.  In 2019, we saw unique new offerings based on eSports (NERD), freedom weighting (FRDM), deep value (ZIG), and even space (UFO).  Perhaps the biggest success story among smaller issuers was Innovator ETFs, who offers a lineup of “defined outcome” ETFs.  These allow investors to participate in the stock market up to a certain cap, along with some downside protection.’s Dave Nadig calls these “some of the most useful products he’s seen in the past 25 years”.  It’s tough to disagree.



My 2019 ETF Chart of the Year:

This year’s pictorial wouldn’t be complete without a reference to ESG, or socially responsible investing.  ESG ETFs grew significantly as a percentage of AUM, but total ESG ETF assets remain microscopic.  No other topic stirred more controversy or debate.  Does ESG investing actually impact companies’ behavior?  Is the point of ESG simply to make investors feel good?  And… what about performance???

Source:  @EricBalchunas


Can’t wait to see the ETF visuals in store for 2020!!